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STAGE REVIEW

Brilliant ensemble makes beautiful 'Music'

Lyric Stage production shows the heart of Sondheim's art

Spiro Veloudos has set the Sondheim bar very high since coming to the Lyric Stage Company in 1998 with a gritty, hair-raising production of "Assassins." His "Sunday in the Park with George" three seasons ago, and last year's "Follies in Concert" for Overtures Productions, have since furthered the growth of Boston's musical theater scene.

The director adds to his reputation, and maybe even Sondheim's, as he ushers in the local fall theater scene with a superlative production of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "A Little Night Music."

Unlike "Sunday in the Park," you won't go out humming the scenery. There isn't very much. But you will go out humming everything else, as Veloudos has assembled a cast and crew that capture all the warmth, wit, and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim's most charming musical, the 1973 adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's most charming movie, "Smiles of a Summer Night."

The cast is a who's who of singers who have distinguished themselves in local productions during the past five or six years -- Maryann Zschau and Christopher Chew ("Sunday in the Park"); Leigh Barrett, Drew Poling, and Kristen Sergeant ("Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"); Bobbie Steinbach and Liane Grasso ("Follies"); and Elizabeth Hayes ("The Spitfire Grill").

Add to them Billy Piscopo from the Boston Conservatory and the amazing 13-year-old Andrea C. Ross (the title roles in "Annie" at Trinity and "Lizzie Borden" in Stoneham) and you have an ensemble that works together playfully and precisely.

"A Little Night Music" presents different challenges than "Assassins," "Sunday in the Park," or the New Repertory Theatre's "Sweeney Todd" did for chamber productions. On a bigger stage, it's the opening pageantry and swell of the orchestra that sweep the audience into the enchantment to follow. As talented as they are, the seven-piece orchestra led by Jonathan Goldberg and the five singers of the chorus don't have the space to go all out in the opening waltz.

That, and the absence of scenic eye candy, puts the onus on the principal singers to establish mood and tone, which Chew, Grasso, and Piscopo accomplish with Sondheim's eloquent trio of longing, "Now/Later/Soon." The middle-aged Fredrik Egerman (Chew) has married Anne (Grasso), an 18-year-old, who after 11 months of marriage is still a virgin. So, we assume after some incompetent groping at the maid, is Fredrik's son, Henrik (Piscopo).

The father sings of his sexual fantasies ("Now") while Henrik whines of being taken for granted ("Later") and Anne promises Fredrik eventual consummation ("Soon"). Sondheim's rhymes and conceits are as dazzling as ever, and the singers let it be known we're going to be in capable hands. (The production could, though, cut down on the grayness in Chew's hair and beard. He's supposed to be as old as Anne's father, not her grandfather.)

Sondheim is often accused of being overly cerebral, lacking the emotional punch that a musical composer should have. This production's great achievement is to cut to the heart of Sondheim's art.

Without the scenic lavishness, each character's yearning and ruefulness take on a special poignance. Each number, buoyed by these singers' skill with Sondheim's melodies, ups the romantic ante.

The other two families in the show are the Malcolms (Poling as a ridiculous count and Barrett as his long-suffering wife) and the Armfeldts -- Desiree (Zschau), the actress and former apple of Fredrik's eye, along with her mother (Steinbach) and daughter (Ross).

Ross, whose poise and pipes are astounding for someone her age, charges the jaunty "The Glamorous Life" with an energy that soon spreads to the rest of the production. Steinbach as both singer and actor owns her role (no mean feat, as Hermione Gingold played the part in both the Broadway and London original casts).

Poling's comedic skills lift "In Praise of Women," while Barrett's magnificent mezzo makes "Every Day a Little Death" particularly sad. At the musical heart of the show is "Send in the Clowns," and Zschau delivers it with such understated beauty, both as a solo and in a reprise with Chew, that you'll want to be sure to have some Kleenex on hand.

This is the song that underlines the characters' foibles and foolishness. Fredrik and Desiree have pursued perpetual youth and looked for love in all the wrong places. It's a Sondheim song that has obviously stood on its own, but inside this musical and inside this production, it shines with heartrending tenderness.

"A Little Night Music," though, is an ensemble triumph. The work is so strong that I bet the two middle-age couples could even switch roles night to night, as this is a production that could leave people wanting to return for more.

Isn't it bliss? Don't you approve? Veloudos and company make the answers to those questions obvious.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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